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Rumsfeld Gets First Hand Look At Guantanamo Detainees - 2002-01-27

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has paid a brief visit to the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for a first-hand look at the detention facilities for Taleban and al-Qaida captives being held there.

It was a hot, sunny but breezy day at Guantanamo Bay as the Defense Secretary arrived for his brief, three-hour visit.

But even before his plane touched down and he boarded a bus and then a ferry for his first-hand look, Mr. Rumsfeld had already made clear the Bush administration's position was unambiguous. It continues to regard the 158 Taleban and al-Qaida detainees held at the base in Cuba not as prisoners of war but as unlawful combatants.

Mr. Rumsfeld spoke to reporters aboard his aircraft shortly after take-off from Washington. "They are not POW's. They will not be determined to be POW's.

Instead, Mr. Rumsfeld calls them dangerous terrorist killers, and clearly not members of anything close to resembling a legitimate military force.

It is a point he reiterated later after touring Camp X-Ray, as the detention facility is called. "The characteristics of the individuals that have been captured is that they are unlawful combatants, not lawful combatants," he said. "That is why they are characterized as detainees and not prisoners of war. The al-Qaida are so obviously a part of a terrorist network as opposed to being part of an army. They didn't go around with uniforms, with their weapons in public display, with insignia, and behave in a manner that an Army behaves in. They went around like terrorists and that's a very different thing."

The distinction is an important one because under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners-of-war have distinct legal rights that would affect the ability of officials to interrogate them. They would also have to be released after the end of hostilities.

Mr. Rumsfeld says he did not make his trip, accompanied by four U.S. Senators, to check up on the conditions under which the detainees are being held. He says he already knew everything was being done humanely and properly and called the effort first-rate.

He says that instead he focused his talks on the construction of further detention facilities and says he believes more permanent cells than the current temporary, open-air facilities are needed.

No detainee attempted to speak to Mr. Rumsfeld as he toured Camp X-Ray. While he was there, though, a loud-speaker blared the traditional Muslim call to prayer for the al-Qaida and Taleban captives, who come from 25 different countries.

Reporters were kept several hundred meters away during the Defense Secretary's visit to the cells and adjacent medical facilities for the detainees.

But Mr. Rumsfeld says ongoing interrogations of the detainees are proving fruitful "to a considerable degree." He says there have been terrorist activities halted and disrupted before more people could be killed.

The United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan against the Taleban and al-Qaida after suicide terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, killing some three-thousand people.